A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.
I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.
The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:
“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”
These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.
In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.
Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.
Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.
यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥
परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।
धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥
This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”
The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.
Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.
The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.
While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.
On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.
Star rating: 4.5 out of 5
Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.